Public Voices and Public Policy: Changing the Societal Discourse on "Welfare"

By Lens, Vicki | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, March 2002 | Go to article overview
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Public Voices and Public Policy: Changing the Societal Discourse on "Welfare"

Lens, Vicki, Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

Much of the public discourse on welfare reform is subjective and value laden, a composite of socially constructed stories and myths that support the dominant ideology. This article reports on a study that examines the language used by government officials, poverty experts, advocates and others to discuss welfare reform. Statements made about welfare reform were extracted from the Washington Post and the New York Times and analyzed using qualitative content analysis. Dissecting the public language of welfare provides insight into how prevailing ideologies are communicated and reinforced, and how they can be changed.


Social problems that involve a lack of something--such as health care, money, food, housing or child care--are inevitably framed by one basic question: is it the individual or the government's responsibility to provide it? Stated in this way, the answer is less empirical than ideological. Ideologies of "self-sufficiency" or "individualism" determine the response, with welfare serving more a symbolic than substantive purpose (Edelman, (1975), 1998; Schramm, 1995). This figurative use of welfare is communicated through language as we construct stories, myths, and "facts" to support this dominant ideology. Even scientific studies designed to measure and explain poverty often conform "to the prevailing biases of welfare policy discourse" (Schramm, 1995, p. 6) using language that supports those biases. In this way, when formulating policy, the "words of welfare" can become more significant than any "facts" about welfare (Schramm, 1995).

While welfare rarely falls completely off the public's radar screen, sometimes the public discourse about welfare remains in the background, generating no action. Other times, as in 1996 when the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program was abolished and replaced with the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program (TANF), the rumblings turn into shouts, and major policy changes are enacted. While policy changes are, of course, the result of a confluence of factors, it is words that signal and embody the changes, with language "not simply an instrument for describing events, but ... a part of events, strongly shaping their meaning and the political roles officials and mass publics see themselves as playing" (Edelman, (1975), 1998, p. 132). Thinking about welfare thus requires thinking about the words used to describe it.

This article reports on a study of the "words of welfare" that preceded the enactment of TANF. It is based on a qualitative content analysis of statements made by elected officials, poverty experts, bureaucrats, advocates and others about welfare reform in the New York Times and the Washington Post between 1994 and 1996. Studying this public discussion provides insight into the prevailing ideology of welfare, and how that ideology is communicated and reinforced. It also leads the way to constructing different "words of welfare" that promote a different response to poverty (Schramm, 1995).


There are many sources for finding the public "words of welfare". They include books, academic articles, the popular media, and the historical record made by legislators (i.e. legislative transcripts, speeches etc). This study chose the popular media because it is the most inclusive, providing a forum for disparate communities and individuals to exchange ideas and debate proposals. It functions as our town square, providing a daily chronicle of how social problems are defined within society and by whom. It is where politicians and others go to plead their case (Cook, 1998). Since this study sought to examine what was being said about welfare reform by the various and most influential participants in the debate, the popular media was the most fertile source for extracting this information. Thus, while this study is not an examination of the role of the media in public policy, it uses the media as one kind of a historical record of the public discourse.

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Public Voices and Public Policy: Changing the Societal Discourse on "Welfare"


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